By now everyone should be aware of the problem we have in this country with invasive species. Whether they’re of the animal, fish, bug or plant variety, invasive species can cause millions of dollars in damage to our economy every year, not to mention the irreparable harm they do to the environment.
Invasives typically are brought into this country inadvertently through the transportation of cargo ships, in wood imported from other countries, or from exotic pet and animal stores. Once introduced into a local environment they usually crowd out native species because they have no natural predators here to keep their population or expansion in check.
Take for example the invasive buckthorn plant found in the popular Putney Mountain hiking area. Native to Europe, the buckthorn was introduced to the United States in the early 1800s as an ornamental garden plant.
Once released into the wild it forms dense stands that dominate ecosystems and displace native species.
The aggressive plant has been spreading on Putney Mountain for about the last 10 years, according to Claire Wilson from the Putney Mountain Association. Reluctant to use chemicals on the invasive plant, volunteers from the group have been working tirelessly over the last decade to beat it back to preserve the popular hiking outlook.
But the plants just keep growing back thicker and stronger after every clipping session.
That’s when Wilson suggested to board members that the group consider a different approach -- one that solves the underlying problem of there being no predators to keep the species at bay.
"There was some shaking of heads when I brought it up," Wilson said.
Wilson’s solution -- which the association began implementing last weekend -- involves turning the invasive plant into a food source for goats, which are known for eating just about anything. After raising some money through grants and donations a small herd of 14 goats walked up to the summit of Putney Mountain last Saturday to munch on the buckthorn, and other woody plants.
The animals were brought up by The Goat Girls Brush Clearing, of Amherst, Mass., a company that touts its ability to remove unwanted vegetation without chemicals, noisy machines or gasoline and oil. Goat Girls staff members walked up to the summit first without the goats and put up a 100-foot fence. They will move the fence around the mountain over the next few weeks as the goats take care of one patch after another until the buckthorn is chewed down to the root. They also plan to return in July for another browsing session.
"I think the goats are going to be very happy with everything in here, and you will be amazed at what they will go through in a short time," said Goat Girls Brush Clearing owner Hope Crolius.
It seems so simple, so basic that it begs the question, why someone didn’t think of it sooner?
Actually, using goats to control vegetation is as old as, well, the domestication of goats. And it’s part of a growing movement here in America to control invasive plant species.
"Goat grazing is sweeping the nation," Newsday wrote in a recent article.
Communities from California, Colorado and Chicago, to Carrboro, N.C., have discovered that grazing goats is a great option for land that suffers from unwanted plants, low organic matter and soil compaction. Goats add fertilizer and aerate the soil while they eat and physically remove the unwanted vegetation, creating healthier soil conditions, according to Newsday.
The article tells the story of Bridgehampton’s Vineyard Field on Long Island, N.Y., where the Friends of Long Pond Greenbelt hired goats to manage the difficult to remove shrub, Elaeagnus umbellate, also known as Autumn Olive. And just last summer the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., employed over 100 goats to control an invasive species that threatened large mature trees, which can fall and damage headstones.
Time will tell if goats present a viable, long-term solution to eradicating invasive plant species but so far they seem like the most eco-friendly solution.
Using goats allows us to avoid pesticides that can also harm native species, and it certainly saves us the back-breaking work of pulling the plant out ourselves.